Should Children’s Book Authors Self-Publish?

Salem (MA) Public Library / via Flickr

Salem (MA) Public Library / via Flickr

Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is by Sangeeta Mehta (@sangeeta_editor), a former acquiring editor of children’s books at Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster, who runs her own editorial services company.


With all the changes taking place in the publishing industry, it seems harder than ever for even the best writers to secure a book deal. Those who do land with a traditional publisher often find that their time there is short-lived, unless their sales meet or exceed expectations. Adult genre writers are solving this problem by self-publishing, either with the help of a literary agent or on their own. But should children’s book authors do the same? I asked literary agents Kate McKean and Kevan Lyon.

Self-publishing phenom Amanda Hocking sold over a million copies of her YA paranormal series before partnering with St. Martin’s. Do you think that series writers like Hocking have a better chance of self-publishing success than those who write single titles? Do young adult writers have an edge over middle grade writers because their core audience is more likely to live online, and their work has the potential to crossover to the new adult and adult markets?

[KM] In a word, yes, and that’s because the reader here is doing the buying, whether it’s an adult reading YA or a teen with a debit card and Kindle. Middle grade readers read on devices some, but they aren’t necessarily doing the shopping. That’s the hurdle to cross. But whether this has to do with YA titles often coming in series or not is not really the issue here. There are tons of middle grade series. The anecdotal evidence I’ve seen, however, is that the more titles a self-published author has up, the more visibility they can possibly garner.

[KL] I do believe that YA writers probably have an edge over middle grade writers in the indie publishing world. Many YA authors are appealing to a crossover readership that is buying both adult fiction and young adult fiction. It is hard to know how many teen readers we are reaching online, but the crossover market is significant. I think this is less the case for middle grade. However, the YA market is still heavily print-dominated on the traditional publishing side, which would suggest that print readership is still an important component of building a young adult fan base.

For picture book writers, one of the obvious obstacles to self-publishing print copies is the cost and quality of color printing. Those who opt to self-publish in the e-book format have several platforms to choose from specifically designed for illustrated books, but this doesn’t solve a much bigger issue for children’s book writers of all categories: distribution to the school & library market. Are limits in distribution the main challenge facing self-published children’s book authors?

[KM] For picture book writers, the cost of producing the book is one hurdle, and distributing it is another bigger hurdle. Bookstores are not likely to stock many self-published titles, so that leaves online distribution only. And as you said, this doesn’t even touch the school and library market. I think distribution is a big obstacle for self-published picture book writers, but so is discoverability. Even if parents are reading to their kids on a full-color tablet, how do those parents even find a book? App stores and the like are notoriously bad for books and little-known entities. Self-publishing is great for many, many writers and genres, but not all, as we can see here.

[KL] I spoke with my colleague Kathleen Rushall, who handles all levels of children’s books for our agency, and she feels it is one of the primary difficulties. Cost is another big factor. Self-publishing a full-color print picture book can be very expensive with little room for a profit margin, especially without distribution. And that’s assuming the author is also creating the art. Otherwise, there’s the additional cost of hiring an illustrator. The author would have to pay for a print run of a number of copies all at once (the cost per copy gets lower as the amount of copies printed goes up, but the total upfront price would be high), or he or she could choose the print-on-demand option. This is not without its own challenges, however, as the cost per copy would be much higher than other picture books on the market and would only be available through one channel.

Would you recommend crowdsourced publishing platforms like Wattpad or Kindle Scout for debut authors? Wattpad boasts a number of success stories of YA writers landing traditional publishing deals after using their platform (Brittany Geragotelis, Beth Reekles). Are these stories the rare exception, or can crowdsourced publishing increase a writer’s chances of receiving a book deal?

[KM] There are success stories of these platforms that have led to fame and riches for the authors and that’s wonderful. But that’s just as likely outside those platforms as inside. If it’s not a matter of posting to get cherry picked for a book deal, and more of a way for a writer to get exposure and feedback on her work, I’m all for these kinds of platforms. I don’t actively search them for clients, but other agents do, I believe.

[KL] I am a big fan of what Wattpad and other similar platforms are doing to help bring authors’ work to new readers. Many of these authors have successfully gone on to expand their readership beyond these platforms either via indie publishing or traditional publishing. Ultimately the author’s goal is to reach the widest possible readership and if these platforms can help achieve that then I am in favor of it. It isn’t always easy to convert readers that are accustomed to getting their content for free to paying for it, but generally with the right publishing strategy this can be very effective.

Back in September, The Horn Book editor-in-chief Roger Sutton said that he doesn’t review self-published books for children because most are “pretty terrible.” From what you’ve observed in query letters and online, is Sutton right? How would a review in a respected journal like The Horn Book, Publishers Weekly, or Kirkus affect your assessment of a self-published submission? An award from an established organization like SCBWI? If you came across a submission that’s received the Spark Award, for example, would you be more likely to represent it or the author’s next book, assuming you love the writing?

[KM] It’s hard to write a good book, period. Reviews of self-published books don’t sway me one way or another. I still have to like the book and believe in it, regardless of what Kirkus thinks. The problem with awards, most often, is that agents don’t know where they come from, how big the pool of entries was, or who judged them. Winning first place out of 50 is different than winning first place out of 50,000. There are some big awards that most agents know, and they can certainly help, especially from well-known organizations like SCBWI, RWA, etc. In the end, it’s still my connection to the writing, but well-known awards can’t hurt.

[KL] There is a lot of self-published content out there, some of it very good and some of it not ready to be published. In the end readers will have to decide which authors they want to buy more than once and as that happens we will see something of a shake-out in the self-pub market. I am always in favor of authors including their history of awards, etc. in their query letters. It means they are serious about their writing, in that they have made the effort to enter these contests and that others have judged them favorably—definitely a good thing! But, an award alone would not influence my decision to represent them. I would need to LOVE the work and believe that I could passionately represent their next work.

YA and women’s fiction author Eileen Goudge was able to revive her career by self-publishing. If you have several books under your belt but aren’t sure you’re ready to be an “authorpreneur,” is it better to keep focusing on your craft, or on digitizing and promoting your backlist? How do you know if you should keep waiting for a traditional deal to come through or take charge of your career?

[KM] A writer has to play to their strengths. If she knows she can’t handle marketing and promoting her work to the extent that self-publishing requires, then she shouldn’t do it. It’s worse to do something halfway than not at all. And only that writer knows when it’s time to shelve something and try something new, or chip away at what she’s got. Writers need to learn to trust their guts and be brave about acting on it, I think. There’s no magic sign, unfortunately.

[KL] I believe that this is going to vary by author. It doesn’t do an author any good to simply upload their past work to an online e-tailer site in an attempt to indie publish. Without a plan in terms of strategy (i.e., do you have a next book ready to go? promotion and publicity?), the odds of the book succeeding go down dramatically. A poorly published self-pub work does you little to no good, and can actually hurt you. Now you have a sales track record, and if it isn’t one you’re happy with, it really isn’t going to help.

SCBWI President Stephen Mooser self-published his latest book, after publishing more than 60 titles the traditional way. Do you think that, except for über bestselling authors, all traditionally inclined writers will eventually want to embrace the hybrid model and self-publish some of their work? Can you envision your more prolific clients traditionally publishing certain categories of books (such as their picture books and early readers) and self-publishing others (such as their middle grade and young adult novels)?

[KM] Just like self-publishing isn’t right for all writers, the hybrid model won’t be right for all writers either. I think more and more will try their hand at it in the future, and some will really succeed. It all depends on what readers want, and where they want to buy it. That’s what we need to watch and adjust to, while keeping the ecosystem as diverse as possible and not just putting it into one platform’s hands. I think because there are so many different ways readers want to read books, writers, agents, and publishers have to deliver books in many different ways.

[KL] I am supportive of indie publishing, and many of my clients are “hybrid” authors. Their self-pub strategy supports their traditional publishing strategy by helping to build their digital readership. Our goal with this strategy is to reach the widest possible market of readers out there—both in print and e-books, and then wherever possible encourage readers to read across all of the series by that author. I also believe it is a solid and smart approach to strengthen an author’s career for the long term.


Kate McKeanKate McKean (@kate_mckean) is Vice-President and Literary Agent with the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. She will open to queries again in the new year and is especially looking for contemporary YA and Middle Grade fiction. Visit her website.

 

Kevan LyonKevan Lyon (@KevanLyon) is a founding partner of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency. Kevan handles women’s fiction, with an emphasis on commercial women’s fiction, young adult and new adult fiction and all genres of romance. Her list includes NY Times and USA Today bestselling author Jennifer L. Armentrout, bestselling author Katie McGarry, Brittany Geragotelis, Cayla Kluver and Colette Ballard.

Posted in Guest Post, Publishing Industry and tagged , , , , .
Sangeeta Mehta

Sangeeta Mehta

A former acquiring editor of children’s books at Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster, Sangeeta Mehta (@sangeeta_editor) runs her own editorial services company. She recently spoke about self-publishing and the children’s book market at the Self-Publishing Book Expo. Find out more at her website.

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23 Comments on "Should Children’s Book Authors Self-Publish?"

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Heather Sunseri
Incredible interview, Sangeeta! Thank you! And Thank you to Jane, Kate, and Kevan. Amazing information to think about. (A lot of this information has been on my mind recently.) Reaching the young adult market is my favorite part of this job, but can be tricky. I love that my books cross over to adults, but I’ve always found that reaching the teens in this very crowded market can be difficult, because so many entertainment venues are vying for their attention. But when I reach teens, they are so energetic about their support for their favorite authors. It makes me want… Read more »
Cate Harris
Thanks for a really helpful interview, Sangeeta. We had the pleasure of Kevan Lyon’s company and professional advice at the Romance Writers of New Zealand conference earlier this year and I wish I’d thought to ask her the about middle grade and YA sectors then! I’ve nearly finished a middle grade fantasy novel and how I’m going to be able to reach potential readers – and the people who might buy for them – is something I’m already thinking about, whether I try for trad pub or take self-pub route. Thanks again. Kate and Kevan added to my thinking material… Read more »
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xist publishing
I am so glad to hear more people talking and thinking about indie children’s books! This article is a great resource for people considering self-publishing for children and Sangeeta is absolutely correct about the distribution issue. When I started Xist Publishing in 2011, my goal was to create digital children’s picture books that looked great on a range of devices. Three years and 200 titles (picture books through YA) later, we’ve found that it’s absolutely essential for our authors to make their books available beyond the traditional self-publishing channels. While we still only do POD for print, our reach includes… Read more »
epifiction
I’m the founder of a new startup (http://reader.epifiction.com) that is focused on delivering live indie fiction to 4th — 8th grade students via schoolwide subscription. Basically the schools pay for the experience of helping to shape the outcome of the story as it is written in episodes over the course of 8 weeks. Our authors keep the rights to the stories after their live run. We’re only running two to three serials at a time currently, but I’m certainly open to discovering more talented middle grade indie authors. We are creating a platform that will help these types of authors… Read more »
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[…] Salem (MA) Public Library / via Flickr Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is by Sangeeta Mehta (@sangeeta_editor), a former acquiring editor of children’s books at Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster, who runs her own editorial services company.  […]

Ben Woodard

I’d be interested in knowing what all of you think of self-publishing with Lightning Source (Ingram). They offer a greater range of books than CreateSpace including dust covers for picture books. And the Ingram distribution.

E.S. Ivy

Ben, one of the resources I’ve used for information is the article Jane recommends, and one of the conclusions I’ve come to is that while I’m working on CreateSpace for Amazon, I’ll need to use Ingram to have books available to the library market and I’ll use that for other on-line book sellers as well.

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[…] Note from Jane: Today's guest post is by Sangeeta Mehta (@sangeeta_editor), a former acquiring editor of children's books at Little, Brown and Simon & Schuster, who runs her own editorial servi…  […]

Stephen Mooser
Thanks Sangeeta. This was a terrific overview of self-publishing today. When someone calls the SCBWI and says they are thinking about self-publishing the first thing I ask is “how are you going to sell this”. Generally they had not thought that far ahead or believed a few Facebook posts would do it. Or that it was up on Amazon. Yeah along with3 million other books. My own book, Class Clown Academy, despite my many published books, many connections and an Interactive Virtual School, classclownacademy.com is no easy sell either and requires huge amounts of work from me and my small… Read more »
Natasha Wing
What do you suggest for a series that ended with the first book? I wrote an early reader chapter book with a fun character that was supposed to star in other titles. Since the book only sold okay, the series idea was scrapped. I have written 2 other stories with this character and feel that now that my name is better known (at least in picture books) that kids and teacher may seek out other titles. Is there a way to keep this series alive with e-publishing? Essentially, the first book would be traditional and then the follow up ones… Read more »
Jane Friedman

Natasha – What you’re describing is exactly what many self-published authors have done. They started a series with a traditional publisher that was dropped (even though an audience was developed for it), then continued the series on their own via self-pub/e-pub. Self-publishing a series continuation isn’t any different than self-publishing standalones. You just do it.

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Kristen Steele

I like the point about playing to your strengths. Authors need to know what they can handle and what they can’t, realistically. You don’t want to get in over your head and fail.

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Cate Hogan

Great article! I recently interviewed one of my writing clients about how she managed to achieve 2.1 million reads (and growing) for one of her books on the site. Wattpad has proven to be a great source of beta readers, and reader metrics. You can check the article out here:http://bit.ly/2bHi29m

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